Prior Use of Executive Action to Protect Undocumented Immigrants

By |Published on December 12th, 2014|Posted in Immigration

Since President Obama issued his outline of his Executive Order regarding immigration, many people have asked me if this was unprecedented . I have responded by stating that there is a long history of President’s issuing an executive order to protect immigrants and that it is not a politically partisan issue. In fact, Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Sr. used executive authority to protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. You may have heard snippets about this in the news, but what exactly did they do?

In November 1986, Ronald Reagan signed the Simpson-Mazzoli Immigration Reform and Control Act. This Act made certain undocumented immigrants eligible for temporary legal status and eventual green cards if they were continuously in the United States since January 1, 1982 and/or were special agricultural workers. This act effected roughly 3 million people thought to be eligible to legalize. However, the Act failed to include spouses or children.

In response to congressional intent to leave out the spouses and children of these undocumented immigrants, President Reagan issued an executive order on October 21, 1987 which he called the “Family Fairness” executive action. He recognized that congress clearly intended to exclude family members from the legalization program. But, regardless of congressional intent, the government would defer deportation of children if they lived in a 2 parent household with both parents legalizing or lived in a 1 parent household with 1 parent legalizing. The order also directed that spouses of legalizing immigrants not be deported if a compelling or humanitarian factor existed. This order was estimated to cover approximately 1.5 million family members representing 40 percent of the then-unauthorized population.

This desire not to separate children from their parents is very similar to President Obama’s current executive order which protects some parents of US citizen children from deportation.

After George H. W. Bush took office, on February 2, 1990, he expanded the Reagan Family Fairness policy to all ineligible spouses and children under 18 of legalizing family members provided they meet certain criteria. The order also made them eligible to apply for work authorization as does President Obama’s order. In furtherance of this order, the commissioner of the INS stated that, “We can enforce the law humanely…to split families encourages further violations of the law as they reunite.”

In November 1990, President Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990 which included provisions to defer deportation of the “Family Fairness” relatives. President Bush stated that this act “salutes its support for the family as the essential unit of society” and “respect for the family unit.” He also issued a signing statement preserving the “authority of the executive branch to exercise prosecutorial discretion in suitable immigration cases.”

President Obama’s executive action is supported by humanitarian precedence set by President’s Reagan and H.W. Bush. The same arguments I hear today in opposition to President Obama’s executive action could be made about his predecessor’s actions. Furthermore, as a nation of immigrants who make support of family a high priority, President Obama’s actions appear to be consistent with our nations values.

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